Living large in Y.A.
Teen-fiction authors Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier are living the dream. Major industry talents from Holly Black (author of Valiant) to David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) routinely drink and schmooze in their spacious East Village digs. They cultivate fans and colleagues on their heavily trafficked blogs, enjoy upscale working vacations in Mexico, and migrate yearly between New York and Sydney. They rack up frequent-flier miles visiting libraries and book conventions to promote their latest literary efforts. And, most importantly, they finance this haute-bohemian lifestyle by writing speculative and fantastic adventures for smart adolescents.
You might see Scott or Justine anywhere on the Lower East Side, running errands on Second Avenue or soaking up local color at atmospheric eateries like Prune or Counter. The two met eight years ago as fresh faces on a bar scene that revolved around monthly science-fiction readings at convivial dives like Dixon Place and KGB. Scott already had three adult science-fiction novels to his credit; Justine was writing an academic overview of feminist SF. Their accidental migration from the tight circles of adult SF to the spacious territory of young-adult fiction mostly occurred through felicitous encounters with YA editors and writers over impromptu cocktails and conversation.
Justine’s Magic or Madness trilogy (which ended this year with Magic’s Child, Razorbill/Penguin) blends Australian Aboriginal folklore (and personal wish fulfillment) with the theoretical physics of a dimensional doorway leading from Australia to the mean streets of lower Manhattan. The reality of magic in this series simply gives its 15-year-old heroine a more cerebral perspective on the difficult choices she’s forced to make.
Scott’s latest bestseller, Extras (Simon Pulse), is a futuristic spin-off from his popular Uglies trilogy in which a 15-year-old girl triggers a worldwide social revolution by . . . just being herself. Both Scott and Justine’s young-adult novels send the same fundamental message — take time to find out who you are, because individuality is power. They suggest that human nature is inherently flawed, but that properly understood, even these flaws can be turned to your advantage. And young, cynical, hormonal readers love them for this.
The past six years have been a boom time for young-adult novels of all kinds, but Scott and Justine don’t take its current popularity for granted. They’re just enjoying and trying to sustain the post-Potter wave of converging media and unprecedented opportunity. When Scott got my e-mail request for an interview, he initially replied: “I’m writing this in a coffee shop with six other writers all of whom are currently making a living writing [YA] novels. That’s no mean feat in any society in history, yet it seems fairly possible and practical right here and now!”
Between his dark-fantasy Midnighters trilogy, his teen-vampire books, and his speculative Uglies quartet, Scott has close to 2 million books in print. Besides his official website (scottwesterfeld.com), there are also growing numbers of user-generated message boards and fan sites where fans flock to discuss his characters and plots. “Teenage fans feel a lot of ownership over the books they love,” says Scott. “They take me to task over decisions they don’t like, they demand sequels, they dress up as characters. A lot of them already comment on my blog, so part of touring is meeting a community in live space that I already knew online.”
Scott freely admits that reader response provoked the existence of Extras, his current hardcover. “Extras was [written] directly in response to questions from kids. They kept asking how famous I was. So I thought a book set in a dystopia where everyone’s fame was constantly tracked would be an idea that would resonate with them.”
Although Justine wed Scott in 2001, she didn’t completely abandon academic publishing for fiction until her first Magic or Madness book was published in hardcover in 2005. Last spring, the paperback version of that debut novel beat not one but two of her husband’s books to win the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Fiction. Justine blogged about her win in May (at justinelarbalestier.com), and it’s perhaps a measure of the quality of their relationship that the couple views her triumph as a triumph for them both.
“It’s wonderful,” Justine says. “We’ve helped each other at every stage of our careers, sharing contacts, ideas, experiences. We’re incredibly lucky.”
Their marital mystique seems to appeal to their readers as well. “A high percentage of our constituency is teenage girls, who find the whole ‘married writers’ thing fascinating,” says Scott. “They want to know how we met, how we help each other, if we’re competitive, and all the rest. Librarians find it pretty intriguing too.”
Librarians are as central to the current YA explosion as bookstores. Fifty-one percent of public libraries now employ someone full-time to work with teens. Because the Young Adult Services category is the fastest-growing division within the American Library Association, the active support of these specialists greatly assists new writers.
Ask Scott if he feels any performance anxiety over being compared to George Orwell in a recent New York Times review, and you’ll discover he exults over a slightly earlier comparison — namely, “Whatever” blogger and science-fiction writer John Scalzi’s theory that Scott’s YA work may be doing for 21st-century adolescents what Robert Heinlein’s teen fiction did for kids in the ’50s and ’60s. Heinlein got teen readers of that era to project themselves into thoughtful, subversive adventures like Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, and Starship Troopers, which prepared them to seek out and sometimes even write the visionary adult speculative fiction published in the ’70s and ’80s. The juvenile stories of Asimov, Heinlein, and Norton were massively influential. But to paraphrase Scott, “You have to restock the pond.”
The third week of every month, Justine and Scott attend “YA Drink Night,” a downtown gathering where New York’s amorphous cabal of published YA writers meet to socialize and talk shop. Stumble into the right Spring Street pub on the right night and you could find yourself hoisting a Belgian lager next to Naomi Novik of His Majesty’s Dragon fame, or sharing cocktails with the brains behind Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, a sort of high school-meets-Will & Grace riff written by Levithan and Rachel Cohn. Once a week, cabal stalwarts lug their laptops to a particular Village coffee shop where they can type together between the hours of brunch and high tea.
“I’m crap at writing in cafés, though,” laughs Justine. “So I usually just gossip and distract everyone else. They’ve all learned not to sit next to me if they intend to work!”
The nicest surprise amid all this careerist socializing is that the YA vanguard refuses to segregate themselves by subject matter. Authors of dark fantasy or science fiction mingle happily with those who chronicle private-school clique wars or gay romance. In contemporary young-adult lit, realism has no caste privilege over the fantastic. Teen consumers reject the thematic hierarchies that bedevil every other media market, unwittingly creating a utopia for iconoclasts like Scott and Justine, who write teen fiction because it frees their best ideas from the deadly limitations of any adult genre ghetto.
Published in: Village Voice, December 18, 2007